Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Euphoria by Lily King: review & interview

Euphoria by Lily King is the best book I've read this year, and I read a lot of books. This historical novel has brilliant insights on human nature, and the writing is as gorgeously lush as the tropical setting. The story was inspired by the life and work of Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist. Mead was controversial for her personal involvement with her research subjects and for her revolutionary theories on sexuality and adolescence. She was also one of the forerunners of feminism. Euphoria's Nell Stone embodies her spirit.

The narrative takes place in 1930's New Guinea on a tropical backwater isolated from the civilized world. The central characters are three anthropologists: American Nell, her Australian husband, Fen, and their British neighbor, Bankson. Although sexuality is part of their uneasy dynamic, the connection between these fascinating characters is more intellectual than erotic.

Nell's greatest passion is her work. Fen is jealous of his wife's fame, but Bankson finds her work ethic and ease with the natives inspiring. Nell nurtures the men in her life but resents her dependence on them for access to her male subjects. The three researchers have unique talents, and when they come together in an orgy of ideas, they create a new theory that rocks the world and has unintended consequences.

Nell describes the favorite part of her work, which gives the novel its title:
"It's that moment about two months in, when you think you've finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It's a delusion - you've only been there eight weeks - and it's followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria."
True to Margaret Mead, Euphoria portrays New Guinean tribal societies with respect:
"'They are human, with fully functioning human minds. If I didn't believe they shared my humanity entirely, I wouldn't be here.' She had real color in her cheeks now. 'I'm not interested in zoology.'"
Euphoria has a marvelous sense of place. It's a book that's meant to be read slowly, with every sentence savored. It's worth buying the beautiful hardcover edition, featuring a Rainbow Gum Tree. The rough-cut pages seem to stick together with the humidity described in lush, tactile words. When the dry season comes, the plot pivots too in this tropical world of extremes:
"Because the rains were late, the road was a desiccated crust, hard as marble underfoot. Ripe fruit exploded when it hit the ground. Hot air blew down from the high trees, their dry fonds cracking against each other. Bugs aimed for her eyes and mouth, looking for moisture."
Every page is brimming with luscious prose, and yet the pace never lags. The writing doesn't distract you from the story. Historical and anthropological details are informative but not didactic. The characters are vibrant. It's not easy balancing all these elements, and few authors manage to achieve such narrative harmony. Lily King's Euphoria could be shelved beside and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and Isabel Allende's Eva Luna: beautiful stories about strong, intelligent women in wild, primitive places. Euphoria won the New England Book Award for 2014.

Flamingos at Lake Naivasha, Kenya

I'd enjoyed Lily's previous novels, but the subject of Euphoria holds more personal resonance for me. For years I've been fascinated by Margaret Mead and other women scientists who broke into fields dominated by men. At college, I studied Anthropology and considered a career in field biology. I spent summers doing field research in Kenya and on the Gulf of Mexico. Euphoria felt all the more real because I'd lived and worked in similar conditions, albeit with fewer luxuries. Then again, I had malaria medication. After reaching the last page, I had many questions.

Luckily I didn't have far to travel for answers. The author lives near me, and we'd met briefly once before through the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Lily suggested meeting at "Brakes and Shocks," a new coffee shop in the West End of Portland. The building used to be a garage and then a laundromat. The cafe's official name is Tandem Coffee + Bakery, but I'm still calling it Brakes & Shocks. It had a cool retro-modern vibe, gourmet coffee and fresh baked goods. The goat cheese, caramelized onion and apple scone sounded like an odd combo, but it was delicious. With its walls of glass, Brakes & Shocks was a wonderful place to chat on a sunny autumnal day.

My Interview of Lily King

Author Lily King at Tandem Coffee + Bakery, photo by Sarah Laurence

Sarah: Your previous novels were contemporary fiction and well received. Why did you switch to historical fiction for your fourth book?

Lily: I didn’t mean to. Nine years ago, when I was just starting my third novel, Father of the Rain, I found Jane Howard’s 1984 biography of Margaret Mead in a used bookstore and I got to this chapter all about this fieldtrip to Papua New Guinea she made with her husband in 1933 where she met and fell in love with another anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, with whom she connected both emotionally and intellectually, and they had this really intense love triangle for five months. I couldn’t help thinking that scenario would make an interesting novel. So that got me reading Mead’s memoir, her academic work, and her letters. But for a long time I didn’t think I could actually write that novel.

Why not?

It was just so far out of my comfort zone on every level. These people would not live in houses but in the jungle of a country I’d never been to. It would take place in 1933 and the three main characters would be scientists. Plus it was historical and I don’t usually read historical fiction. I don’t like feeling that I’m being fed a lot of research.

Your writing was very tight and focused. How did you hold onto your story?

Thanks. I really tried, even as I was doing the initial reading for the novel, to keep my mind open to ideas and possibilities. And I limited the amount of researched detail I used. I used a fraction of what I wrote down in my research notebooks. It had to be essential to the action. Otherwise I chucked it. The narrative had to drive the story, not the research.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead, photo from Wikipedia
Why did you change Margaret Mead’s name to Nell Stone?

Nell is not Margaret Mead. I got the idea by reading a biography of her and I definitely borrow many details from her life and the lives of her husband Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, but in the end I tell a very different story. I thought at first I would use their names but by the end of the first chapter, as the characters took shape, I felt handcuffed by history and I had to break away from it. Once I changed their names, my characters were free to be different people. They became my characters. I didn’t land on their names immediately. Nell was originally Polly, but she wasn’t a Polly. Andrew Bankson started out as Geoff. Characters grow into their names.

Since Nell is the protagonist of Euphoria, why didn’t you narrate the book from her voice?

Initially, I tried to write it exclusively from her point of view, then from all three of their perspectives. But Bankson’s voice was the one that really felt right. Once I got his voice I realized it was his story. And that really changed all my ideas for what would happen in the end. But I did need her perspective, so I included her journal entries, which were initially letters from her to Helen, her lover of many years.

I was surprised to learn from other interviews that you wrote Euphoria in your attic without ever visiting New Guinea. Your book has a marvelous sense of place and vocation. Have you done fieldwork in developing countries?

No, I was an English major and never took an anthropology class. The only experience I have had in the jungle was when I went up the Amazon in Peru with my new boyfriend (now my husband). I definitely remembered the heat, the oppression of the heat, and the things we did, but when I found a little notebook I’d brought on that trip, I thought I would find all sorts of good details, but all it had in it was the beginning of a letter to my sister all about how he and I weren’t getting along in the oppressive heat. So I had to be an armchair traveler for this novel. I read everything I could find about the region and anthropology, ethnography and fieldwork.

How long did it take you to research and to write Euphoria?

I researched the book intermittently while I was writing Father of the Rain. When that was finished, I spent a few more months reading about Mead and New Guinea, then started in. I wrote the first draft of Euphoria in a year and a half, then spent about six months revising on my own. After I’d written six or so drafts, I shared it with my husband, my writers’ group, my agent and my editor. Then there were more revisions.

 Do you have an editorial agent?

My agent, Julie Barer, is an editorial agent. She had me do a good bit of revising before sending it to my editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, whom I’ve had the great fortune of working with at Grove Atlantic for all my books.

Will your next book be historical or contemporary fiction?

My next novel will be contemporary, I think, set in somewhere between 2003 and now. I have six pages of notes and a page and a half of the first chapter. I have a lot of research ahead of me. It’s going to be a really challenging book to write.

Tandem Coffee + Bakery (Brakes & Shocks)
742 Congress St. Portland, Maine
What is the best writing advice you received?

I think it’s a quote by E.L. Doctorow:

“Writing is like driving at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

That's one of my favorite quotations too, and it fits our location. Sometimes I wish for fog lights when I'm revising. 

Thanks, Lily, for joining us at the book review club, and good luck with the next book!

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@Barrie Summy

Reviewer's Disclosure: I was not compensated for this review, but I have a personal connection to the author. Lily's daughters attend the same school as my daughter. She agreed to the interview on my request and didn't ask me to review her book. I bought my copy of Euphoria at Longfellow Books and two more at Gulf of Maine Books to give as gifts. My mother enjoyed Euphoria too.


pattinase (abbott) said...

This is at the top of my list. Really like the subject and her writing.

Unknown said...

I thought I was going crazy! I scrolled back through your posts because I felt like I'd read about this book before. It didn't occur to me till later that it was on Ellen's blog! :)

Lovely review as always!


A Cuban In London said...

Intriguing, alluring and one of the better opening sentences I've read in your blog. Coming from a connoiseuse like you, I take this recoomendation seriously as this is your favourite book so far this year and the year is not even out! :-)

If it wasn't for the fact that I have just bought two books (after promising myself that I wouldn't buy any more until I finished the ones on my bookshelf) I will have to put this one on my waiting list. Thanks for the review. I love historical novels and this souns like it's right up my street.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Patti, I’d love to hear your reaction.

Alyssa, that’s right: Ellen Booream reviewed Euphoria last month. A good book gets a lot of attention, especially from us Mainers.

ACIL, you sound so much like me. I know you’d enjoy Euphoria.

Ellen Booraem said...

As usual, you hit it out of the park with the review/interview combo! Utterly fascinating, especially because I loved the book, too. My partner Rob is absorbed in it now.

You're right--Ms. King did an incredible job of creating a sense of place strictly from reading. Courageous of her, and encouraging to the rest of us to see it work so well.

troutbirder said...

Oh my what a wonderful review and thank you for reminding me. Reminding me I'd put this book at the top of read this book next list- lost it- forgot it and now as I shut down my computer for the night I'll be ordering it on my little Nook. :) I read much of Meads work as an undergraduate.

Barrie said...

Great review and interview! This is the best book you've read all year? And Ellen also loved it. How can I now read it?!!!

cynthia newberry martin said...

I read The Pleasing Hour years ago, and I've always remembered Lily King's name. I love reading about process and had read a bit about hers on this book in the NYT. Nice to hear it up close and personal and also to discover where she is on her next novel. I look forward to reading this one, especially with its gorgeous cover. Thanks, Sarah.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Great review and interview, Sarah. This sounds like an amazing book, and how cool that the author lives close to you. I love the idea of a Brakes and Schocks Cafe. So cute.

I had the privilege of hearing Margaret Mead speak once at a graduation ceremony at the Claremont Colleges. She was a fascinating woman.

Amanda Summer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda Summer said...

I enjoyed your superb review and interview. King's admission about not traveling to Papua New Guinea to research the book was refreshing. I read somewhere that after the book was published she didn't remember a lot of facts and details about her research because, as your interview reiterates, she only used what was necessary and chose to remain focused on the storyline. Apart from the iconic nature of Mead herself, I've long been intrigued by Bateson's views on western science and will definitely plan to read this book.

Cat said...

I'm adding this to my Goodreads shelf. Thanks for the recommendation, Sarah!

Rose said...

I'm so glad I scrolled down to read this post; ironically, I've been so involved in reading lately (Ken Follett's "Edge of Eternity," the last of his trilogy) that I didn't have time to participate in this month's Book Club. This sounds like a book I would definitely enjoy, especially when you said it was the best you'd read this year--high praise indeed! I thought, too, of Barbara Kingsolver when you started explaining the setting and plot. This one will definitely be put on my must-read list!